My friend Mehran wished me luck before my operation. The usual thinking of you, praying for you, sentiments. He also requested that I do something about hospital gowns. You know what I am talking about, those things we have to wear that are backwards. Your front is covered, but your tush is exposed for all the world to see. I can see why Mehran is aghast at having his tush exposed. To be truthful, we are all aghast at that thought.

Hospitals must have millions of these things lying around. They are ubiquitous. I am put in one at just about every occasion. CT Scan? Wear one of these, keep your underwear, socks and shoes on. What a fashionable you make walking around it that outfit. You look a bit like Napoleon, one hand behind your back making sure your tush is not exposed. They are concerned with your dignity, and suggest you take a seat while you wait. They have these chairs covered in vinyl and expect me to share my more or less exposed tush with the germs that are likely infesting the seats. Plastic  is a great host for germs who multiply to their hearts content, feasting endlessly on whatever nutrients are available for them. I prefer to pace, thank you very much. And pace I did, regal in stature.

Parents have for years exhorted their children to wear clean underwear, just in case you get hit by a bus and get rushed to hospital. Nothing more embarrassing than dirty underwear while you are lying helpless in the emergency room. This is troubling on several levels. Why would our parents put the fear of death or maiming in our heads at such a young age? Why would I want to ruin a pair of clean underwear if I am involved in such a severe accident? I surely want to wear a dirty filthy pair if all the hospital is going to do is cut them off my prone and helpless body! But who wants to wear dirty underwear on the off chance that you might get hit by a bus?

But I digress. Hospital gowns.

I was in hospital for 10 days wearing one of those gowns. We became intimate as it were. They are truly versatile objects. They allow the staff, doctors and nurses alike, to reveal any part of the body in a matter of seconds, while maintaining your dignity by covering other parts. I noticed they were particularly eager to cover your groin area. I thought at the time that this was very thoughtful of them, maintaining your dignity. I wonder now whether they were not protecting themselves at having to look at yet another example of a man’s shortcomings (I stole that thought from David Niven). They are saved from looking at a very limp and ineffective example of one’s manhood. That is all the poor nurse needs to see – again. I have to assume now, that they were busy protecting their own dignity.

The before surgery procedure required the shaving of the hair on my stomach, where the incisions were to take place. The hair had to be shaved right down to the pubic area. Don’t you know it, the nurse made sure that most of the groin are was covered revealing only the required amount of pubic hair that was then shaved. Who coined the word pubic? For the longest time I kept thinking it was public, which was most confusing. Private area but public hair. Say what? I have visions of these bored scientists coming up with the word pubic just to see how many of us would get confused. Cruel.

You lie in the bed after surgery, hardly able to talk, let alone defend yourself. Nurses are busy revealing and hiding parts of your body proving over and over again that the gowns are indeed versatile and worth every measly penny of our tax dollars that has been spent purchasing and maintaining these. Sorry Mehran, these things are here to stay.

The nurses in the hospital provide you with two gowns. The first one exposes your back, but the second is put on backwards covering your precious derriere from all eyes. You walk around in your two gowns, remembering to remove the second one before getting back into bed. The last thing you need is to struggle with two gowns in a bed. These gowns are huge. They are a one-size-fits-all design. You could weigh 90lb (40kg) or 300lb (140kg), and you are given the same size gown. Not like they go around sizing you up or anything. (By the way, does anyone know why the symbol for pound is lb. Liquid ballast?). I went into the hospital weighing around 170lb (77kg) and cam out at 155lb (70kg). Losing 15lb is much more impressive than losing 7kg. I am now back to the 170lb mark. The one-size-fits-all is perfect for such occasions.

The unfortunate thing is this. The solution to the bare is simple and easy to implement. It might even save hospitals money from reduced laundry costs, and from not having to purchase new gowns for a while since they can stop double gowning their patients. I wish I could patent this, but that is not to be.

All the hospitals have to do is put two ties on their gowns, very much the way dressing gowns are designed. The first is attached to the edge of, say the left side of the gown. he second is attached to a location that would be close to the side of the body around waist high. All the patient would do is tie these to each other covering their tush.

I am such a genius.

The good people at Wellspring allowed me to join the Art Therapy session that takes place on Wednesdays between the hours of 10 and 12.

Devin and I drove Janet to work in the morning. We got to Wellspring about 30 minutes too early. We had a coffee and read the paper.

Art Therapy. I had no idea what to expect and decided to try really hard to keep an open mind. It was not difficult. Last time I had anything to do with painting or drawing was in boarding school in England. I had the dubious distinction of almost failing that class. I mean really, who “fails” at art class? There were too many other things going on in my life at the time, like surviving in an all-white school as the only coloured person. Minor issue.

The room was small with a large square boardroom table. The instructor was still setting things up after the 10AM start time. It really matters little. What else do we have to do? Places to be? The table was covered with a couple of pieces of rubber mats. The type that some people put on their dining room tables to protect the surface. I gather that it was the first time for everyone based on the reaction to the mat and the discussion regarding its fabric. This did not bode well. The mats were covered with dry paint from previous such classes. By the time the dust had settled, there were six women in the room and moi, the sole male. Perfect ratio.

About 35 years ago, in Montreal, I went out to dinner with a bunch of friends and my sister Fetneh. There were 8 of us, if I recall. The waiter kept giving me the hairy eyeball. I was starting to wonder if I knew the guy and had offended him somewhere. It suddenly occurred to me, as I looked around the table, that his look was more quizzical than hairy. He was wondering what a douche bag like me was doing with seven women. The harem, such as it was, consisted of my sister, my oldest friend Nahed Rushdy and a bunch of other platonically related people. Nahed and I grew up in Ethiopia. She pointed out to me the other day, that we have known each other since grade whatever in the 60′s. Just to say, I have been in this situation many times.

The assortment of people was varied. You have to understand that all the goings on at these sessions is strictly confidential. So you can’t just go and blab it out to everyone. You stand on notice. The lady sitting beside me also has colon cancer. Her surgery is done and she is mending. She was very sweet and gentle in her manners. She does not need chemo therapy, lucky her. We will talk more next week. I have to digress again.

I used to be a computer trainer.  I noticed at a particular point that people tend to sit in the same seats when they come back for more training. Does not matter if the training is at their location or ours. The person would come back for their second training day, be it a day, week, or month later, and make a bee-line for the seat they had occupied the last time they were there. They were also quite put out and almost disoriented if someone had beaten them to their seat. It is a very peculiar behaviour. Not sure what it means, or how you would go about studying it.

I am sure that we will all sit in the same seats next week. I might even go in a bit late to test this. The instructor set up the room. Lots of paper, bowls of paint of all the primary colours and a couple more, pails of crayons and chalk, markers of all colours. Once settled, we were given our instructions.

We are going to paint, and discuss our paintings with everyone else. No judgments, All positive. No matter that you cannot paint. Let the child within you rear its tempestuous head and take over. Relax. Cry. Put your hands in the paint if you want the tactile feel. Everything is confidential. No recriminations. We are all in the same boat. Cool.

Our first assignment: paint your name. Not necessarily literally, though that is what we all did, but what you feel your name represents. Are you happy with your name? Do you love or hate it? Does it evoke joy? Whatever. The lady next to me folded her sheet in half. These are large sheet measuring 24 by 18 inches. She was being practical since there was little room. I followed suit. I was also being practical. How could I possibly fill up that amount of space?

Some of us sat there looking pensive, trying to not look concerned over the fact that we really did not understand how you could paint your name. Most went ahead and wrote their names down in BIG letters and started to colour them in, adding more and more detail. I decided to draw my name in Persian, just to be a bit different. I can neither read nor write the Farsi language, but I can write my name. It is a complicated language, beautiful, lyrical, but complicated. I painted some grass at the bottom of the page, a tree on the right, and a giant sun above and to the left. My name was front and centre. The sun is shining on me. So many interpretations!


People revealed a bit of themselves in the paintings, which made for a very interesting session. One person drew a heart in which she drew the faces of her family. She cried when she told us what that was about, specially when she said she wants to live. Very poignant. Others added some elements of what they like to do around their names. Statements of fashion design, traveling (planes), and water. Lots of water all around. Seems water has a very calming effect on people.

One person had splotches of purple, and brown and various other colours all over the paper. It was all covered and looked a bit peculiar. Turns out it was her garden of lilac trees. Made perfect sense. You could see the garden come to life in all the splotches and stains covering the wrinkling paper.

Another drew a house with a path leading up to it. Her name was written inside in all its blazing glory.  She craved the safety of the roof over her head. She said she had no idea why she drew what she did, just came to her.

There was a fair bit of chatter, but nothing of any consequence. Strangely no one asked for an explanation of my choice of language. Devin thinks I should take up calligraphy. So I went out and bout some pens, paper and a book to see where it takes me.

The next assignment was to paint our safe place. This smacked a of of the meadow exercise in the relaxations and visualization session. Devin said I should have painted a swarm of mosquitoes. Not very safe. This one took a while. I have never really thought of a safe place. My bed? That is where I go when I am tired, or need to get away from everyone. But I would hardly call it a safe place. Specially when one of the cats decides that any time is good to lie on my stomach. What or where is a safe place? This one took a while. I watched as the others threw themselves into the project with great gusto. The person to my left, of the roof over her head fame, was also deep in thought. Another participant had closed her eyes and deep in thought. It turns out she was doing a deep breathing exercise and centering herself. Interesting concept.

So I sat there. The person to my left requested pencils to draw with. And so we sat, contemplating the safe place conundrum. My colon cancer partner had found a safe place of sorts. She watching the birds swooping in to their nests in the building across the driveway. They felt safe. She felt she had found something. I finally found mine.


Ramone Alones

The text which you can barely read says:
Nothing like a great Cuban cigar on a warm evening surrounded by friends and family enjoying the times, dinner, conversation.

My painting generated far more conversation than I expected. They wanted to know about cigars, do you inhale? What makes a cigar good? How much does a cigar cost? Do women smoke? The caption under the title: Ramon Alones reads: The ultimate Cuban cigar. 45 minutes of bliss. 45 minutes? Are you kidding me. Hence the safe place. Sit, smoke, enjoy the company and the moment.

One person drew a church, and her house, her garden, and family. Another her time at a cottage that she found peaceful under the radiant sun surrounded by water. Another drew reference to her cottage that always brings solace and peace. My colon cancer partner gave up on drawing the building across the way. Her drawing was the most moving for me. Her thinking evolved into drawing a bunch of rectangular boxes in a bit of a pelle mele from the top of the page to the bottom. Somewhere in the middle of the page, two of the boxes leaned against one another. She drew herself in the triangle that was created by the joining of the boxes. There was great emphasis on the person. She surrounded herself with more protection, dark lines that enclosed her in the space. She equated her safe place with somewhere to feel comfortable and warm, a place to make peace with yourself. I will have to spend a bit more time with her. She is proving vulnerable and terribly interesting.

This is a long post. There is more.

These paintings generated a lot of conversation. Not sure how much of it was intended or not. The instructor was content to let people speak their mind and comment. He was quiet through most of the banter. There was a great deal of respect amongst the participants. No recriminations or judgments. All talked and participated. I took a lot of notes.

How do you define a safe place? Is it internal or external? Mention was made of the people who get caught in disasters losing their homes and belongings. How distraught they are. Have they lost their safe place? Should they consider the material belongings as safe? Is it not better to internalize the safe place? That way you have with you always, taking it with you through good times and bad. Radiating from the inside out.

How do you deal with the well meaning people who surround you with the best of intentions? You keep having to explain yourself and what you are going through. People just don’t get it. They ask the same questions, over and over again. We are dealing with the pain, both physical and emotional, why don’t people understand? We are trying to remain optimistic as we travel this long journey, trying to forge a new identity, a new reason for being. Why don’t people understand? Relatives and friends, all well meaning who criticize you for having a messy house instead of pitching in to help. Why don’t they understand? Should we expect them to understand?

What expectations should we have of others? How do we get support mechanisms in place that would ease the pain? What role does religion play? Is it a panacea? Or a placebo? Giving you false hope and expectations? How does God talk to us?

We talked about making a connection with life, with the earth, digging your hands in the garden and feeling the soil.

Water was in three or four of the drawings and paintings bringing peace and tranquility to people’s souls. Water, vast, in constant motion, calming, at peace with itself.

A couple of people cried, albeit briefly, stifling back the tears and immediately apologising for it. Everyone was quick to offer them tissues. Why apologise? Of all places, this is the one where no apology is required. Don’t they know that we all cry? All the time? We apologise for all sorts of things.

I had a surprisingly good time at this session. It lasted over 2 hours. The instructor had a difficult time bringing it to an end. The group was not willing to let things go. I am looking forward to next Wednesday. Look forward to your comments.

© 2010 I Have Cancer Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha